WHILE the United States is still abuzz with the US Supreme Court's recent ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission - which removed the prohibition on campaign spending by corporations and unions directly from their coffers, in a latest round of more than a century of debate to reform campaign finance - campaign finance laws in the Philippines have remained unchanged for decades.

Money, as an essential component of politics, needs to be regulated for its corrupting influence and, peculiarly in the Philippines, to level the playing field between moneyed and cash-strapped candidates. It is a given that one cannot successfully wage a decent and successful campaign without sufficient funding, for reaching out to voters and getting one's message across, not to mention the logistics needed in maintaining a political campaign, necessitates money. But when campaign finance is not regulated - as to source, extent and manner of spending - it becomes a problem.

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The most pernicious effect of loose or unregulated campaign funds is the corrupting influence huge contributors exert on candidates once elected to office. Debt of gratitude becomes a factor in the grateful official's conduct in office, whether expected or not. More often than not, however, the generous donor expects a quid pro quo; a return on investment, if you will.

A simple illustration will show how unregulated campaign funds factor into the public functionary's conduct. A person who is elected mayor in a city, for example, is the beneficiary of huge campaign contributions from businessmen. When these businessmen-contributors apply for a license in setting up new business or when legislative measures are considered in the city council that will affect their pocketbooks - such as the imposition of new or higher taxes - the mayor-beneficiary will certainly be clouded in his judgment as payback time beckons.

Even in the unlikely scenario that the contributors expect nothing in return, the grateful official will likely protect the interests of his benefactors for fear of a backlash, by displeasing them or deterring others from making huge donations to his campaign in the future.

The other problem of unregulated campaign funds is the inequitous situation it creates between the moneyed and cash-strapped candidates. While the affluent has access to unlimited resources in reaching out to voters, the candidate of small means struggles to get his or her message across, which makes politics in the Philippines largely an affair for the wealthy few.

Finally, even if it were to be assumed that a candidate spends his or her own money in the campaign, there is that danger of him or her recouping the expenses once elected into office by pursuing nefarious "under-the-table" transactions and other corrupt practices.

Ever since Batas Pambansa Bilang 881 (Omnibus Election Code), the country's basic election law, came into effect in 1985, there has only been one legislation that introduced changes to campaign finance in the Philippines, which is Republic Act No. 7166 or the Electoral Reform Law. Even then the only reform introduced, aside from the penalties imposable for violation thereof, is the increase in the amount of campaign expenditures that may be incurred by a candidate, by increasing it from P1.50 for every registered voter in the constituency for which a candidate filed a certificate of candidacy to P10.00 for the president and vice president, P3.00 for other candidates with a party, P5.00 for other candidates without a party, and P5.00 for political parties.

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives in 2007, which seeks to punish political turncoatism and impose limits on donations and expenditures by individuals and corporations, and in the Senate in 2004 by former Senator Ralph Recto (also deals with political turncoatism, creation of a state subsidy fund to augment the campaign activities of accredited political parties, and imposes limits on contributions), never saw the light of day.

Interestingly, the target of regulation in our existing laws is the spending aspect only. Our election laws are notoriously silent on any limit on contributions which go to the core of corrupting elected officials. Any person or business entity not disqualified by law may contribute any amount to a candidate's coffers. Although the law imposes limits on the amount and type of campaign expenditures, and candidates are required to report all contributions, there is nothing that regulates the excess contributions. After the elections are over the excess pretty much becomes discretionary funds of the candidates. It is no wonder then that Congressman Mikey Arroyo could say with a straight face that campaign contributions are among the sources of his increased net worth when questioned about his Statement of Assets and Liabilities.

Even with the existing limits on expenditures, however, it is no secret that candidates have always conveniently and flagrantly ignored them. Based on Comelec's election statistics for the 2007 national and local elections, there are about 45,294,430 registered voters nationwide. At a limit of Php 10.00 per registered voter, presidential and vice presidential candidates for that election should have spent only a maximum of P450,294,430.00 - a far cry from the P5 billion that one needs to be elected president, according to a 2008 report by the Pera't Politika Working Group, which is a consortium of public interest organizations formed to monitor election spending. The same report states that the expenditure for senatorial races ranges between P150 million and P500 million, P10 million for mayor, and P15-150 million for governor. It should be noted that these figures go way beyond the limits imposed by law.

As if lack of campaign finance reform is not enough, existing regulations are rendered meaningless for want of effective enforcement. Not one candidate has yet been penalized for violating spending limits. Not that I find pleasure in seeing someone punished, I'd be happy to know if Comelec can point to particular cases. And even if it can, such cases would surely be dismally few and involve largely unknown candidates, compared to the hundreds of candidates who routinely violate the strictures on campaign spending. According to a 2004 article by Glenda M. Gloria, entitled "Selling a Candidate," cited in Pera't Pulitika's report, the media earned more than a billion pesos from political ads for the 2004 elections in just a span of four months. This is a tell-tale sign that spending limits have been violated, yet the Comelec has not taken any action against those responsible.

This early, presidential candidate Senator Manny Villar has already reportedly spent P543 million in political ads on TV, putting him among the top 20 television advertisers. There's no telling how much he would spend more come formal campaign period. What is certain, however, is that we would see the same deluge of television, radio, and newspaper advertisements which would gobble up huge sums of money. But after elections are over, candidates will once again doctor the contribution and spending reports they will submit to Comelec, and the latter will simply file them away and pretend that the law has not been violated.